It is estimated there is at least one chronically lonely older person living on every street in Scotland, writes Brian Sloan.
You can’t escape Christmas right now. Whether it’s cheesy festive tunes on the radio, TV adverts trying to sell you the perfect gift or a Christmas tree twinkling in a neighbour’s window, there is no getting away from reminders of seasonal cheer.
But for so many older people, Christmas is anything but cheerful. Maybe this was the year they lost a beloved spouse and face Christmas alone for the first time. Or their daughter is visiting her in-laws so they won’t see her or the grandchildren again this year. Or December 25 is just like every other day, spent in the company of the TV without a phone call or a visit but, more acutely painful, because everyone else appears to be celebrating with family and friends.
Around 184,000 older people in Scotland say Christmas is the loneliest time of the year. The festive holiday, with its emphasis on cosy family gatherings, brings back memories of happier times, spent with family and friends who are no longer around.
Age Scotland research has found at least 106,000 of over-65s in Scotland will sit down to dinner alone on Christmas Day. That’s more than twice the capacity of Hampden Park. A quarter of those asked in a survey admitted they were not looking forward to the festive season and one in ten will spend the day on their own.
This is more than a set of sad statistics. Loneliness kills. It is a public health epidemic which is as dangerous to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of stress, heart disease, anxiety and depression and doubles the risk of developing dementia.
Stoically endured loneliness
People who are lonely or have few social interactions are predicted to be more at risk of suicide, more likely to suffer falls and have a 25 per cent increased risk of mortality. And as our population ages, faster in Scotland than the rest of the UK, it is becoming a crisis.
Loneliness can affect anyone of any age, but older people who have experienced bereavement, retirement, ill health or children moving away are particularly vulnerable. The over-80s are among the worst affected, with 28 per cent saying they dreaded Christmas. They are also the age group most likely to be widowed or live alone.
What is stoically endured for the rest of the year is brought into sharp focus when everyone else seems to be surrounded by loved ones.
Loneliness is a widespread but well-hidden problem. There is still a stigma about being isolated that prevents people asking for help. Age Scotland estimates that there’s at least one chronically lonely older person living on every street in Scotland.
It’s easy to feel helpless when confronted by the scale of problem. But there are opportunities to help. Age Scotland’s Share What You Love campaign invites people to commit to spending time with an older person to share a hobby, a meal or even a favourite TV show.
Across the country, older people’s groups, supported by Age Scotland, are doing great work organising lunch clubs, music appreciation groups and dementia-friendly gatherings. The volunteers who run these groups play a vital role in reaching out to older people on their own and drawing them back into the heart of their communities.
Men’s Sheds are another initiative giving older people a place to meet, share their skills, have a chat and a coffee. Regular “shedders” say they feel less isolated since joining their local Men’s Shed. In Jedburgh, the team from the Jed Shed has come up with a simple but effective way to encourage people to talk. They have put a bench in front of the town’s historic abbey with a plaque that reads Happy to Chat. Anyone who fancies a natter can sit down and enjoy some company.
A similar venture in Glasgow’s intu Braehead Shopping Centre, which offers Chatty Chairs for older people who want to sit down and talk to someone, has proved popular with shoppers.
Our helpline and Community Connecting service can offer free advice and support to older people wanting to spend time with like-minded groups. The helpline is also available for the families of older people, to give information that might assist an isolated relative reluctant to seek help for themselves. There are plenty of ways Scotsman readers can help too. Striking up a friendly conversation with an older person at a bus stop can make someone’s day. Pop in to see an older neighbour who lives alone, just for a cup of tea or offer to pick up shopping for them. At this time of year, many older people are confined to their homes because of bad weather and so little daylight. Even getting to the shops in winter can be an ordeal for older people and by the time spring comes around, they have got out of the habit of leaving the house.
Volunteering is another great way to get involved. Our Age Scotland volunteers work across the country, bringing older people together and fostering a sense of among isolated individuals. We are delighted that The Scotsman has joined Age Scotland’s campaign to shine a light on this problem at Christmas. But it is important to remember loneliness doesn’t disappear on Boxing Day.
Let’s make 2020 the year of connecting with isolated older people in all our communities. Sign up for the Share What You Love campaign – and tell us what you enjoy doing with your older friend. Working together, we can help to tackle the scourge of loneliness.
Brian Sloan is chief executive of Age Scotland. Visit its website at agescotland.org.uk or call the Helpline on 0800 12 44 222.